GRIMSBY Town will have to come from behind if they are to reach the National League promotion final after Braintree Town won at Blundell Park for the second time in three weeks.
Captain Kenny Davis scored the only goal from the penalty spot after Simeon Akinola had been fouled by Josh Gowling to give the Essex side the advantage at the end of the play-off semi-final first leg.
In a tightly-fought contest, the Mariners struggled to break down their well-organised opponents, despite having much of the possession.
And despite a performance full of effort and commitment, Town were unable to make the most of their home advantage as Danny Cowley’s men held on to what could prove to be a crucial lead.
After eight changes were made for the final game of the regular season at Tranmere on Saturday, it was a more familiar-looking Grimsby XI that took the field against the Iron.
James McKeown returned in goal, with Richard Tait, Toto Nsiala, Gowling and Evan Horwood forming the defence.
Nathan Arnold, Craig Disley, Jon Nolan and Andy Monkhouse were the midfielders, with Padraig Amond and Omar Bogle selected as the strikers.
The Grimsby substitutes were Shaun Pearson, Jon-Paul Pittman, Danny East, Conor Henderson and Patrick Hoban.
Braintree made the long journey north looking for a similar result to the one earned on their previous trip to Blundell Park last month, when Taylor Miles’ late goal gave them a 1-0 victory.
Miles, as he had been that night, was named as a substitute, with the likes of strikers Michael Cheek and Akinola expected to be among the dangermen from the start.
An early stoppage came when defender Matt Fry went down after getting a push from Amond but he was passed fit to continue after treatment.
The first shot was fired by away skipper Davis on three minutes, although his low effort from the edge of the box went comfortably wide of McKeown’s target.
Braintree also won the first corner, with Nsiala touching the ball out on eight minutes. The ball from the flag was headed goalwards but it rebounded off Bogle and Town were able to break.
Referee John Brooks allowed play to go on after Monkhouse was fouled by Alex Woodyard on the left but a free kick was given when Nolan was bundled over seconds later. From it, the ball was half-cleared to Horwood, whose shot from 25 yards was blocked.
A chance for the Mariners almost came after an intelligent flick by Bogle sent his strike-partner Amond into the penalty area. The Irishman tried to curl the ball towards the far post but good defending saw it blocked.
Horwood and Tait both saw crosses headed clear as the hosts tried to establish a grip on the game, before a long, hopeful ball forward was chased down by Bogle, who won a corner on the right. Nolan’s short ball to Tait from the flag led to the right-back crossing but after Amond headed it back across goal, Mitch Brundle headed clear.
Monkhouse was spoken to by the referee after a foul on Matt Paine, before a wild shot by Brundle cleared McKeown’s crossbar after Gowling had lost possession near the halfway line.
The next corner came on 20 minutes and went to the visitors after good build-up play. Sam Habergham’s ball was headed away by Disley, before Brundle had a shot blocked by Nsiala.
Another corner came soon afterwards but Brundle’s delivery beat everybody and resulted in a Grimsby throw-in.
Nolan looked to let fly with a first-time shot from outside the box after a Horwood long throw broke for him on 24 minutes but the midfielder collided with Arnold as he shot and the ball went away for a goal kick.
A cross from Sean Long at the other end was deflected out for a corner three minutes later but Habergham’s cross was comfortably caught by McKeown.
The game was moving from end to end and soon afterwards, a deep cross from Tait was headed out for a Town corner. Paine got to Nolan’s delivery first to head clear under pressure from Disley, who was ruled to have fouled the Braintree man.
A quick break by the visitors led to another corner after a shot from Akinola was deflected and McKeown could not stop it from going out. Brundle’s outswinger was not dealt with and a shot eventually came in, which was well saved by McKeown.
The first booking of the game went to Braintree’s Fry for a foul on the Town right. The resulting free kick did not lead to visiting keeper Tom King being tested.
Amond had an opportunity soon afterwards after good hold-up play by Bogle but his low shot was comfortable for King.
Phillips was the next to see a yellow card after bringing Bogle down on 36 minutes. Nolan’s free kick from 25 yards was pushed out by King but the ball rebounded off Monkhouse for a goal kick.
Good link-up play between Bogle and Nolan almost led to another chance on 40 minutes but a vital interception stopped Nolan’s cross reaching Amond.
Town were now starting to get on top and they were on the attack again two minutes later, although Amond could only head wide after Monkhouse’s cross from deep on the left.
One additional minute was signalled to be played at the end of the half and with no further openings for either side, the game remained goalless at the interval.
Both teams had their moments during an entertaining first 45 minutes but genuine chances had been few and far between, as could be expected in a game of this importance.
No changes were made before the restart and the first chance of the second half went to the hosts, with Amond firing at King from inside the box.
A handball decision in the Mariners’ favour gave them another opportunity to get the ball into the penalty area from the left. Nolan’s delivery was flicked wide of the far post by Monkhouse.
Disley was penalised for a foul on Davis near the halfway line on 50 minutes but Nsiala won the header from Habergham’s resulting free kick, before Davis hammered a shot onto the roof of the Osmond Stand.
The course of the game changed on 52 minutes when a tricky run by Akinola took him into the box, where he was stopped by Gowling. The referee pointed to the penalty spot and DAVIS stepped up to open the scoring from 12 yards.
A home penalty appeal came soon after the goal when Amond went down after the ball was flicked on by Bogle. This time though, Mr Brooks waved play on.
Bogle had a shot blocked from outside the box as the Mariners looked for a route back into the game.
But it was Braintree who were the next to attack, with McKeown saving a low shot from Brundle after Cheek had squared the ball.
Cheek almost had a shooting chance after seemingly outmuscling Nsiala to get into the box but the defender recovered and good covering by his fellow centre-back Gowling endured the danger was cleared.
At the other end, a Tait cross was dealt with, before a shot from the right-back was blocked for a corner, which was punched clear by keeper King.
Arnold won another corner on the right on 64 minutes and this time, the Mariners went close to levelling the tie as the ball bounced around the six-yard box but a good save from King kept them out.
And yet another corner came when a Monkhouse cross was headed behind by Habergham. This time, Braintree half-cleared but the offside flag went up as the ball was lifted back onto the box.
Nolan and Monkhouse linked up to get behind the away defence on 68 minutes but after it was crossed, Amond was unable to force the ball into the net.
Bogle was replaced by Hoban as Town boss Paul Hurst made the first substitution of the game a minute later.
A Tait cross was headed back across goal by Hoban but it was then headed out for another Grimsby corner. Braintree struggled to clear their lines from the flag-kick and the ball eventually dropped for Gowling inside the box but he could only lift it over the bar.
Cheek was replaced by Sean Marks as the away side made a change in attack with 14 minutes left to play.
Town kept pushing forward and another corner was won by Arnold, although it came to nothing as the whistle blew for a foul when the ball was crossed.
East was sent on in place of Arnold in Town’s second substitution, with the Mariners desperately searching for an equaliser.
Four added minutes were signalled to be played at the end of the game but try as they might, Town could not find a way through.
And that meant it was advantage Braintree after the first leg, with the Mariners now needing to win the second leg at Cressing Road on Sunday to keep their promotion dream alive.